Fresh off a Covid-induced pause on their season, which extended back to 2021 (3+ weeks), Ohio State men’s basketball was forced to shake off the rust in Lincoln, Nebraska. One night after a thrilling Rose Bowl victory by the football team, the basketball Buckeyes provided some excitement of their own, sweating out an 87-79 overtime victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The win bumped their overall record to 9-2, but resulted in no change to their standing in the AP poll (No. 13). All-American candidate E.J. Liddell had his struggles after the long layoff, but Malaki Branham and Jamari Wheeler stepped up in a major way.
Branham exploded for an efficient career-high of 35 points on only 19 shot attempts. His impressive point total was the second-most by any Ohio State freshman, behind only Jared Sullinger (40 in 2010). Branham, who was last year’s Ohio Mr. Basketball, had a previous high of 11 points, and attempted more than 10 shots only once during OSU’s first 10 games. Against Nebraska, he nailed more threes (6) than he had previously made all year (5), and drove to the hoop frequently. While it might be easy to peg this breakout performance as a fluke, I think it is just the beginning of a major upward trajectory for this talented freshman. He was confident and aggressive, which is something Buckeye fans were eagerly anticipating. Branham can fill it up.
Super senior Jamari Wheeler was his usual rock-steady self, and helped fill the leadership void created by Kyle Young’s absence (non-Covid illness). He hit a few big threes late on his way to 16 points and seven rebounds. With Liddell struggling from the floor, Wheeler and Branham were life-savers. Liddell finished just 2-of-14 from the field, but contributed in other ways. He played 41 total minutes, pulled down eight rebounds, and added five assists and four blocks. It was not the prettiest performance, but it was one that Ohio State needed.
The Buckeyes now move on to Bloomington, and a Thursday matchup with the Indiana Hoosiers.
Indiana has had a bit of an odd season thus far. They currently sit at 10-3, but do not have a signature win. The Hoosiers opened with a narrow victory over lowly Eastern Michigan. They then beat up on the likes of Northern Illinois and Jackson State en route to a 6-0 start. However, they have gone 4-3 since (1-2 in the Big Ten), and when this team faced their first “big boy” opponent of the season, Syracuse hung 112 points on them. IU did score 110 and almost pulled it off in double overtime, but giving up 112 is giving up 112. Conversely, in their three Big Ten games, the Hoosiers have scored 68, 59, and 58 points. So can this team find efficiency and outscore teams in the top half of the conference, or is their only hope to win a bunch of traditional B1G rock fights?
The results will likely be a mixed bag, as Mike Woodson attempts to pick up the pieces from a broken Archie Miller experiment. Perhaps the IU alum and former NBA coach finally has this program heading in the right direction. After all, Indiana’s offensive efficiency is way up from last season, and they are also holding opposing teams under 62 points per game, but past results may be more indicative of what this team really is — or at least what they have been — and what Woodson is trying to fix.
Under Miller last season, Indiana was terribly inefficient on offense. They finished outside the top-200 (347 D1 teams) in field goal percentage, two-point percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage. Their offense was brutal. So far in 2021-22, the percentages are much better, but they have beaten up on inferior opponents and participated in a track meet with Syracuse. Conference play has been an entirely different story. Scoring less than 60 points in the Big Ten is nothing out of the ordinary, but it has to be very concerning for Woodson that his team shot under 40 percent against both Wisconsin and Penn State (both losses). The sloppy play and poor shooting of last season may come back to bite them in 2022.
Defensively, the Hoosiers have been great outside of the Syracuse game. Teams are shooting just over 35 percent against them, which is good for third in the country… but again, I ask if this is real, or is this a mirage brought on by the schedule? Well, Indiana’s “best” win is against Notre Dame or Nebraska — neither of which are a ‘good’ basketball team. Their suffocating defense has been propped up by sub-50 point performances from Northern Illinois, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jackson State, and something called a Merrimack. If they can hold to Buckeyes to a low number, maybe I’ll be willing to believe that IU’s defense is for real. Until then, color me suspicious.
As far as individual players go, keep an eye on forward Trayce Jackson-Davis for the Hoosiers. The third-year big man and All-Big Ten/All-American performer has been a stud since the minute he arrived in Bloomington. He burst onto the scene by averaging 13.5 PPG as a true freshman on less than nine shots per game in 2019-20. Efficiency has never been a problem for the Indiana native, and neither has rebounding or defense. For his career, on a per-game basis, Jackson-Davis is averaging 8.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks to go with his 16.7 points. He has averaged over 19 PPG since the beginning of last year, and is shooting an absurd .600 from the field in 13 games this season. He is not an outside threat, but he will give Zed Key, Kyle Young, and perhaps even Liddell all they can handle defensively. After finishing last season as a Wooden Award Finalist, he will likely join Liddell in future POTY conversations.
I can’t get a great read on this Indiana team. I think they are better than the team that lost 58-61 to Penn State, but far worse than the team that managed to score 100 and hang with Syracuse. I don’t buy their newfound efficiency or some of their improved defensive metrics, but I know that Trayce Jackson-Davis is the real deal.
When the Buckeyes and Hoosiers matched up last February, Jackson-Davis was dominant. He scored 23 points on 14 shot attempts, and pulled down nine rebounds… but OSU won by a sizable margin. Both Key and Young have experience going against him, and how well they defend the IU big man will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game. Race Thompson is Indiana’s second leading scorer at 10.8 PPG, and he is another post-oriented player, so I believe interior defense and rebounding will be of the utmost importance.
If Ohio State is able to moderately contain the opposition’s big men on Thursday, their talent and scoring prowess should be the difference. Big Ten results tell me what I really want to know about these two teams, and those results tell me that one team can put the ball in the hoop a heck of a lot easier than the other one can. In conference games, the Buckeyes are averaging 78.7 PPG. The Hoosiers average 61.7. OSU is splashing down 11 triples per game, while IU is hitting fewer than six — with less than 33 percent efficiency.
Add in the fact that Liddell will be looking for a big bounce-back game, and that he may have a new running mate in Branham, and I think you can see where this prediction is going. I don’t agree with some in the national media, but I haven’t made fake millions by swimming with the current. I will give Indiana a handful of points for being at home, but the Buckeyes eventually prevail.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 45.1%
Line: Indiana -2, over/under 138
Time: 7:00 PM ET, Thursday 1/6